Hot August Night/NYC (DVD) by Neil Diamond

September 29, 2009

I have been a Neil Diamond fan since his early days recording for the old Bang Label and 45’s of such hits as “Solitary Man,” “Cherry Cherry,” “Girl You’ll Be A Woman Soon,” “Thank The Lord For The Night Time,” and “Kentucky Woman” still reside in my record collection.

In 1972 I bought the original Hot August Night, followed by Hot August Night II in 1987. Now I have Hot August Night/NYC.

This DVD has a lot to recommend. It was filmed during his four sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden during August of 2008. The sound and the visual quality are both excellent. He surrounds himself with a band complete with brass which fills in the sound and makes many of the performances very dynamic. He also uses background singers who provide great help to his vocals.

I have seen Neil Diamond in concert several times plus have a number of his live recordings and this may be his most consistent vocally. His voice may not be as strong as it was forty years ago but he controls it well and does not overreach. I have heard him when it was scratchy and sounding tired but that is not the case here.

The two-hour, twenty-six-song concert is a combination of the new and old with a few surprises. There is also a DVD bonus feature titled “Welcome Home Neil” where he returns to his old Brooklyn neighborhood.

“Holly Holy” gets the concert off to a good start with the use of the aforementioned brass. “Cherry Cherry,” “Thank The Lord For The Night Time,” “Cracklin’ Rosie,” “Sweet Caroline,” and “I Am…I Said” all are performed to a warm audience reaction. I’ve personally seen him at times totally ignores his band but here he allows them to shine a little on their own.

The inclusion of “Street Life” is an unusual but wise decision as it is one of the strongest tracks. “I’m A Believer,” which became a hit for The Monkees, is also resurrected. Throw in “Brooklyn Roads” and “Done Too Soon” and you have a nice selection of lesser-known tunes.

Appearing for the first time live are such songs as “Home Before Dark,” “Don’t Go There,” and “Man Of God,” all of which fit in nicely.

Rousing versions of “America” and “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show” bring the concert to a satisfying conclusion.

One more bonus is included—a CD entitled Neil Diamond 10 Favorites—which supposedly consists of some of Neil’s favorite tunes. While there is nothing really new it is perfect for the car CD player.

As he nears the fifty-year mark in his career, Neil Diamond is who he is and Hot August Night/NYC presents him at his best, making for a nice retrospective of his long and illustrious career. It is a must for his fans.


Fresh Cream by Cream

September 29, 2009

Eric Clapton had a busy three plus years. He had joined The Yardbirds and left. He had joined John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers and left and come back and left again. I’m not sure what he had in mind when he left Mayall, for the last time but his next project would become one of the legendary rock groups in music history.

Cream may not have originated the term supergroup but they certainly fit the bill. Jack Bruce of Manfred Mann, The Bluesbreakers, and The Graham Bond Organization and Ginger Baker also of The Graham Bond Organization joined Clapton. Individually they were not very well known in The United States, but in their native England there was a lot of publicity attached to their union. Within a year they were one of the most popular bands in the world.

Fresh Cream is not my favorite Cream album. But having said that it is still very good and one of the more creative debuts in rock history. It lacked cohesiveness, yet all the elements of Cream at their best were present. It served as a fine jumping off point for what was to come.

“I Feel Free,” which was the lead track on the original American vinyl release, is one of my five favorite Cream songs, yet is still different from the sound for which they would become famous. The a capella beginning and its melodic nature make it fairly unique within their catalog. It is straight forward psychedelic rock with some pop leanings. “N.S.U.” is somewhat similar but it features some short jams, particularly by Clapton.

There are a number of old blues covers that set the table for Disraeli Gears and Wheels Of Fire. “I’m So Glad” may have repetitive lyrics but Bruce, Baker, and Clapton meld together well. “Rollin’ and Tumblin’” is the old traditional Muddy Waters tune that is given a percussion driven treatment. “Four Until Late” may be short, but Bruce’s harmonica and Clapton’s guitar fuse together in ways that were cutting edge at the time. “Cat’s Squirrel” finds a relaxed Cream with Clapton providing short bursts of brilliance.

That brings us to “Toad.” After a short guitar intro, Ginger Baker embarks on one of the first extended drum solos on rock history. He would become famous for his manic playing and these solos would become a permanent part of Cream’s live act.

Fresh Cream was the first step on a short but brilliant journey for Eric Clapton and Cream. It was a journey that would bring Clapton lasting fame and lead to Cream’s induction into The Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame.


Me About You/To Be Free by Jackie DeShannon

September 29, 2009

Jackie DeShannon toured with The Beatles, dated Jimmy Page, and hung out with Elvis. She also has placed sixteen singles on the Billboard charts and released over twenty studio albums. Her original compositions have been recorded by many artists and in 1982 her “Bette Davis Eyes” won the The Grammy Award for Song of the Year.

Collectors Choice Music has just issued several of her classic albums and this is the best value as you receive two albums for the price of one. Me About You, issued in 1968, and To Be Free, issued in 1970, are now seeing the light of day for the first time in decades.

Me About You catches her trying to change with the times. Music was evolving in 1968 and she was trying to present a more mature mix of material. She depended upon songwriters of the day as she only wrote three of the tracks.

Her vocal style is fully developed by the time she recorded this album. She still has a purity to her style but now added an ability to provide passion and emotion as well.

She recorded three tracks by the songwriting team of Garry Bonner and Alan Gordon. The title song is given an urgency not heard on The Turtles version. “What Ever Happened To Happy” is smooth and perky while “I’m With You” comes very close to a country sound.

There are a number of other highlights as well. She takes the old Four Tops tune, “I’ll Turn To Stone,” in a pop direction. Two Tim Hardin songs, “Baby Close Its Eyes” and the bonus track “Reason To Believe,” are given simple renditions as is The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Didn’t Want To Have To Do It.”

Her best original compositions are the ballad “Splendor In The Grass” and the nice love song “I Keep Wanting You.”

To Be Free is a very different affair. She mostly leaves the cover songs behind and writes or co-writes eight of its eleven tracks. She also is supported by a number of background singers in places which help to fill out the sound.

“Livin’ On The Easy Side,” “What Was Your Day Like,” and “Child Of The Street” show a great deal of lyrical and musical growth by DeShannon as she leaves the simplicity of her early compositions behind. “Brighton Hill,” inspired by her love of the English countryside, features a very smooth pop vocal and should have been a big hit single.

She always had an affinity for soul music and here she successfully presents a medley of the odd combination of The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” and Little Anthony and The Imperials’ “Hurt So Bad.”

Me About You/To Be Free is a nice slice of late sixties, early seventies pop music by an artist who is often ignored. This one is a keeper.


Christmas Harmonies by The Beach Boys

September 26, 2009

The Beach Boys have been cranking out the reissue and compilation albums for a few years now. Their latest is titled Christmas Harmonies which resurrects eleven tracks from their classic 1964 Christmas album plus four more which have been issued in various forms over the years.

Does the world need another Beach Boys album or to be precise another Beach Boys Christmas album? The answer is probably no, but the music is just so good. If you do not own any of their holiday material or just possess the 1964 vinyl album, then this would be a wise and enjoyable buy.

The four rare tracks are a hit and miss affair. “Child Of Winter,” created in 1974 has seen the light of day a few previous times over the decades, but still remains one of the rarer Beach Boys tracks. It also remains one of their better creations from the seventies. The vocals, the harmonies, and the production rank with some of their best work. The alternate take of “Auld Lang Syne” features the young Beach Boys at the height of their vocal powers and there were few better. On the other hand “Melekalikimaka” and “(I Saw Santa) Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” are non-offensive but lightweight additions.

The tracks I enjoyed in 1964 and through the years remain the ones I still prefer today. Brian Wilson gives two of the great lead vocals of his career on “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” and “Blue Christmas.” The harmonies on the traditional “We Three Kings Of Orient Are” are exquisite. Their hit single, “Little Saint Nick,” is still a couple minutes of pure listening enjoyment.

The Beach Boys have provided any number of unique Christmas gifts over the years. For many this latest release may be a little too familiar but that does not take away from the overall quality of the music.


Blues Breakers: John Mayall with Eric Clapton

September 26, 2009

Blues Breakers: John Mayall With Eric Clapton is one of the few vinyl albums that I have replaced with the CD version. Yes it’s that good!

Eric Clapton left The Yardbirds in 1965 because he felt they were becoming a pop group rather than continuing in the rhythm & blues direction he preferred. He would serve two short stints as a member of John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers in 1965 and 1966. It was a match made in heaven, as Clapton would emerge as one of the most respected guitarists in rock ‘n’ roll.

He would only record one album with Mayall and it would be released after he departed. It would, however, become one of the essential albums in rock/blues history, as he would combine his style and technique to produce sounds that were innovative and new. His smooth and energetic solos helped to define the fusion of rock and blues as it propelled the guitar, as an instrument, into the modern age. Much has been written about his genius of using his Les Paul Gibson guitar with a Marshall amplifier, but it created such a different sound that it opened up the world of guitar playing to all sorts of new possibilities.

When listening to this album you need to focus on Clapton’s guitar and not be sidetracked by Mayall’s vocals which are adequate at best. Bassist John McVie and drummer Hughie Flint are a functional rhythm section and provide a solid foundation for Clapton’s searing solos.

The twelve tracks that formed the original release are a combination of Mayall compositions and blues classics. “Have You Heard” contains the perfect guitar solo. The old Mose Allison tune “Parchment Farm” is just under two and a half minutes of blues bliss. Even the Ray Charles classic “What’d I Say” succumbs to Clapton’s virtuosity. “Ramblin’ On My Mind” is notable for his first recorded lead vocal. The songs that comprise this release are about as close as he would come during his career to emulating the old blues masters that he so revered.

Blues Breakers: John Mayall with Eric Clapton is a perfect guitar album that changed the face of modern music. It would make his short span with The Bluesbreakers well worth the time and effort and provide a link to his next project.

Clapton would always seem to stay within a group setting for a short time and then move on to something else. In this case he would move on to one of the great super groups in rock history.


I Get Around 45 by The Beach Boys

September 24, 2009

The Beach Boys placed 12 titles on The American charts before the release of “I Get Around.” Songs such as “Surfin’ USA,””Surfer Girl,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” “Be True To Your School,” and “Fun Fun Fun” all became big and memorable hits but none hit number one. “I Get Around” finally pushed The Beach Boys to the top of the charts on May 23, 1964.

This is classic up-tempo Beach Boys. The harmonies are layered and full and just wash over you. They grab you from the first note and the beat moves the song along. When exploring their catalogue it does not get much better than this song.

I find it interesting that it is not remembered as much as some of their other classics843z which is unfortunate as it is two minutes and twelve seconds of pure pop bliss.

It also contained one of the best flip sides in music history but that’s another story.


The Genius Hits The Road by Ray Charles

September 23, 2009

Genius is a word that is often bandied about but when used to describe the talent of Ray Charles it hits the mark.

Ray Charles rose to prominence during the 1950’s as a rhythm & blues artist while recording for the Atlantic Label. Near the end of the decade, the ABC-Paramount Label made him an offer he could not refuse and Atlantic would not match. For the sum of $50,000 he switched labels, which resulted in the release of some of the most influential albums in American music history. His catalogue for the label would solidify his status as a true American icon.

While his two volumes of Modern Sounds In Country and Western Music would be his best-selling and well-known releases, The Genius Hits The Road became a huge hit in its own right, assembling all the pieces for his future success. It marked his first partnership with producer Sid Feller. Plus, the Raelettes made their first appearance while David “Fathead” Newman and Hank Crawford brought their tenor and alto saxophones to his backing band.

This inaugural1960 debut for his new label remained on the American charts for fifty weeks.

The Genius Hits The Road is a concept album, in a way, as all the tracks refer to locations in the United States. Seven bonus tracks that round out this reissue continue this travel theme and fit in nicely.

“Georgia On My Mind” was a number one hit for Charles and remains one of his signature performances. It perfectly blends together soul, rhythm & blues and pop with one of the smoothest vocal deliveries ever recorded.

Some unlikely titles may cause warning signs to go up for listeners but Charles was such an interpreter of all kinds of music that he managed to make a number of them terrific. “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” “Blue Hawaii,” “Deep In The Heart Of Texas,” “California Here I Come,” and “Moonlight In Vermont” all succumb to his magic.

The bonus tracks serve to enhance the songs that comprised the original release. “Hit The Road Jack” features the classic refrain and is another one of his signature performances. His six-minute take on “Rainy Night In Georgia” is the best this side of Brook Benton. Charles makes “Sentimental Journey” perfect with his precise phrasing. He even manages to pull off “The Long and Winding Road” (which was culled from a later point in his career).

It always nice to hear Ray Charles at height of his powers. The Genius Hits The Road finds him beginning a journey unlike any other in American music history. Just climb on board and enjoy the ride.